Sunday, March 4, 2012

Book Review: Foreign Correspondence: A Pen Pal's Journey from Down Under to All Over by Geraldine Brooks

When you read a book by Geraldine Brooks, you know you are in the hands of a master. In Foreign Correspondence, she not only gives a typical memoir, but she adds the twist of looking up her childhood penpals. Most memoirs with a twist or angle, really feel forced, but Ms. Brooks's does not. Largely because of how important her pen pals were in her childhood.

While growing up in staid suburban Sydney, Geraldine felt closed-in, restricted, and boring. Despite being surrounded by immigrants and refugees - something she only realized as an adult in retrospect - she felt her upbringing was conservative, closed-off, and uninteresting. But also, leaving the country is something that was simply expected in that era. Australia is so far away from everything else, which leads to it being so behind, that all the young people leave, at least for a little while, usually after college. Geraldine was particularly chomping at the bit for her walkabout. When she was still too young to travel, she looked for foreign penpals to introduce her tot he world abroad. She started with a girl on the other side of Sydney (which was actually quite foreign to Geraldine), expanded to an American, a French girl, and two boys in Palestine and Israel, a Christan Arab, and a Jew.

As she grew up, she did travel herself, extensively, as a foreign correspondent. She married an American Jew, settled eventually in Virginia, and spent time all over the world in war-torn places, bringing news stories to the public. And as she travelled, she had opportunities to find her old penpals. She was mostly inspired by her relationship with Joannie, the American, who had a rough life but was always optimistic. Geraldine felt guilty when her own life went well as Joannie struggled so much with mental issues and yet really worked hard to overcome them. Joannie was really Geraldine's best friend for ten years, and when Geraldine got in Columbia University's journalism school in New York, she was so looking forward to finally meeting Joannie in person!

I had worried that this book would be entirely about the penpals, but it was largely about growing up Australian. And not the Australia of kangaroos and koalas that the rest of us usually think of - the Australia that was a little behind the times, a little innocent, and yet going through changes as it pulled away from England's grasp and tried to forge its own path more. It's interesting to see another country taking such interest in America's presidential elections, and Geraldine's father influenced her international flair with his Zionism and his own travels (an American, he had been a big-band singer in the 1930s).

Her writing is so excellent that you don't notice it at all. It's smooth, precise, and eloquent. I admire her way with words and how she's happy for her writing to be in the background, and isn't showy or flashy. I enjoyed it very much and I think anyone would really like it.

I borrowed this book from a friend.


Christy said...

This sounds really cool. I enjoyed Year of Wonders (except for the ending) and thought People of the Book was fairly interesting, but I'd like to try Brooks' memoir.

Stacy at The Novel Life said...

I have wanted to try Brooks but have not gotten around to it yet...this memoir sounds like the perfect introduction to her writing - thanks for the suggestion and wonderful review!